Cannes 2008 diary: 'Blindness'

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Dave Calhoun sees the good and the bad in Fernando Meirelles' 'Blindness', the opening film at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival

Opening the 61st Cannes Film Festival tonight is the world premiere of Blindness’, a slick and murky adaptation of Portuguese writer José Saramago’s allegorical novel about a city which is devastated by a plague of blindness: one by one the citizens of an anonymous metropolis lose their sight and so the government sees fit to quarantine a frightened group of victims in a disused mental hospital.

It’s a contained, theatrical set-up that allows for the interior intensity of a ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ coupled with a ‘Lord of the Flies’ approach to exploring the values and behaviour of a community in crisis.

The film’s ensemble cast features Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael García Bernal and Danny Glover and is the fourth feature from Fernando Meirelles, the director of ‘City of God’ and ‘The Constant Gardener’. As you’d expect from Meirelles, ‘Blindness’ is smartly and often impressively directed: he handles intimate and claustrophobic group dynamics with the same dexterity as spooky, empty urban exteriors.

But it’s the script that’s lacking: as a parable for a society – both its working and its failings – ‘Blindness’ works only in fits and starts and relies too much on events and too little on ideas. Ultimately, it’s a film that falls prey to its narrative speed and complexity; as a viewer, one is rarely able to focus on a moment, a scene or a thought and to investigate it for its meaning. There’s no room for meditation, which is a bit of a disaster for a film whose story hinges on the need for society to sit back, take a breath and ‘see’ what it’s doing to itself.

The film with which ‘Blindess’ will suffer most in comparison – if only for its timely proximity in the world of film releases and critical discussion – is Julian Schnabel’s ‘The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly’. Both faced a similar challenge: how to translate to the big screen a sudden physical affliction initially described with all the interior tools of a novel. We know what Schnabel has achieved. The central failing of ‘Blindness’, which on the surface is similarly inventive in its telling and especially its camerawork, is that Meirelles never fully captures the horror of losing ones sight.

Not that Meirelles doesn’t try valiantly to translate the experience to the visual. His characters, first a Japanese man (Yusuke Iseya), then a car thief (Don McKellar, also the film’s writer), then an ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) all experience a bright white light, which we too see, and this same over-exposure isolates characters from their environment in our eyes.

The problem is that no sooner do we begin to share the difficulty of adapting to this new, blind state, than we meet another character and then another and then another… The build-up is to an impending group drama rather than to individual tragedy. Our main focus is Ruffalo’s character and his wife, played by Julianne Moore (who doesn’t lose her sight and ends up being the only sighted person in the asylum), but even their new relationship – him blind, her increasingly a nurse to an extended, suffering family – isn’t given enough time to settle and develop.

There are other, specific issues. There’s a key plot movement that hinges on us believing that one of the ‘patients’, played by Gael García Bernal, is able to inflict a sort of autocracy over the others. This never feels much more than a theoretical contrast with ideas of democracy; put simply, we don’t believe it. Also, early in the film, the selfish tics of those soon to be blinded feel a little obvious. Finally, throughout the film Meirelles puts too much emphasis on emotionally hackneyed scenarios: for example, a scene that indulges in an extended stand-off between Ruffalo and armed guards from the outside.

The idea that the blind can see more deeply than the sighted has been a regular staple of literature all the way back to the Greek tales of the prophet Tiresias. But anyone who has seen Peter Bogdanovich’s soppy ‘Mask’, a tale of a beautiful (blind) young girl at summer camp who falls in love with a boy with a hideously deformed face will know that cinema has a tendency to attribute ridiculous levels of wisdom and purity to the blind.

Make no mistake: Meirelles’ ‘Blindness’ is more sophisticated than that – here, as in Saramago’s novel, the ‘blindness’ of the seeing is more societal than personal – but it’s still not sophisticated enough and finally adds little to the debate. It’s Danny Glover’s permanently blind character to whom Meirelles gives that most all-seeing of roles: the wise and perceptive voiceover (which, I assume, is quoting the novel directly). And, again, it’s Danny Glover, a blind old man, whom we linger on at the end when this long struggle comes to some sort of conclusion.

It seems a little ironic, too, that in the final chapter of the film Meirelles should rely so heavily on the spectacle of empty streets as his blind characters wander the deserted city. We, too, are forced here to see rather than to think.

Read Cannes review of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ here

Read Cannes review of Clint Eastwood's 'The Exchange' here

Read Cannes review of Terence Davies 'Of Time and the City' here

Read Cannes review of Woody Allen's 'Vicky Christina Barcelona' here

Read Cannes review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 'Three Monkeys' and Pablo Trapero's 'Lion's Den' here

Read our review of Steve McQueen's 'Hunger' here

Read our review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 'Three Monkeys' and Pablo Trapero's 'Lion's Den' here


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